I wrote the first three parts of this essay almost a year ago, and now I perceive an aspect of this theme I couldn’t have seen prior to the presidential primary season. Nicholas Lemann writes:
…the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics. During the past half century, the country has had more Presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union.
The South has become for the Republicans what it had previously been for the Democrats, the essential core of a national coalition. In the early 1980s a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department wrote a series of memos that passionately opposed aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three decades later, that lawyer, now Chief Justice John Roberts, led a Supreme Court majority that struck down the major enforcement provision of the act. In the short time since that decision, seventeen states have put voting suppression into law. So clearly, Southern racist values are the primary backdrop to both the Republican Presidential race as well as the broader question of voter suppression.
Now we can see how the South has impacted the Democrats as well. Of course we remember the “Solid South” of the Democrats that lasted roughly from 1890 to 1980 and that is now just as solidly Republican. But I’m talking about the lamentable trends that have been on full public display in the Democratic primaries.
The count of pledged delegates (not counting super delegates) through April 27th showed Hillary Clinton with 1,644 (including 761 from the former Confederate states) and Bernie Sanders with 1,316 (352 from those states). Without including them, Sanders was actually leading by 964 to 883. Of course, it’s silly and unrealistic to theoretically eliminate the Southern votes, but these numbers do show their overwhelming influence.
Clearly, Sanders all-but conceded most Southern primaries because they occurred too early for him to increase his name recognition, and indeed voter turnout in those states turned out to be 45 percent lower than it was in the party’s last competitive presidential primary in 2008. Certainly, Clinton’s victories had much to do with the high percentages of African-Americans in those states who supported the Clinton brand. But does this really explain her 44 – 10 delegate margin in Alabama? I’ve tried but cannot find any voting patterns by white democrats (who remain the great majority) in these primaries, but I doubt if those voters supported Sanders either. Was it actually conservative, white Southern Democrats who gave Clinton her victory margins rather than non-white voters?
And what about this pattern of having all the Southern primaries early (except for Kentucky)? David V. Johnson argues that the South has had too large a say too early in the primaries and that this is no accident:
The effect of the Southern-leaning calendar is far more profound than the straight delegate numbers, because of what psychologists and political scientists call the bandwagon effect — the proven tendency individuals have to follow the beliefs and behaviors of what is seen as popular. The more the voting public appears to favor Clinton, the more voters will tend to do so in the future…This effect is likely even more pronounced due to the influence of superdelegates…This year’s Southern-fried scheduling is profoundly undemocratic.
As the primary season continued and Sanders’ name recognition increased, that bandwagon effect predictably decreased. When Kentucky finally voted on May 17, Hillary won exactly one more delegate than Bernie did (28-27). We might well ask what if the entire south had waited until that date, and why the Democratic National Committee annually determines such a time sequence that inevitably gives its most conservative candidate early momentum.
In any event, and for whatever combination of factors, Clinton will almost certainly win the nomination because she swept these states – none of which the Democrats have the slightest hope of winning in November. So her Southern support will prove to be crucial to her nomination but useless in the general election, where Republicans will continue to sweep the South.
This bears repeating: Hillary swept the Old South in the primaries, but she has no hope of getting any of their votes in the Electoral College. Partially because of voter suppression made possible by the Supreme Court majority – most of whom were appointed after elections determined by the same Southern Strategy) and partially because of old-fashioned racism and misogyny, these states will all go to Donald Trump.
Let’s be clear about this issue. Corrupt voting patterns are as American as bad food. But legalized voter suppression – segregating those who are allowed to vote from those who are prevented from doing so – is a Southern legacy, stemming from three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow. And the Democratic establishment’s willingness to engage in both suppression as well as widespread corruption (think Nevada, New York, California) in the primaries may also be useless against the acknowledged masters of the art, the Republicans, in the general election.
Clinton’s negative numbers are now as low as Trump’s, and each will have little to say beyond demonizing each other. The campaign will certainly be the most negative in history. Most Americans, right or left, will be voting for the lesser of two evils, and millions of young voters who have so enthusiastically supported Sanders will stay home. This means that countless progressive candidates, from the Senate to the local dogcatcher, will lose for lack of interest. Clinton may prevail in the general election, but with no mandate and no Democratic Senate. The American Empire – with its heritage of Southern militarism – will endure undisturbed and unquestioned. And the obstructionist Republican Congress will be happy to destroy even the mildest of liberal legislation, just as they have for the last eight years, and blame the mess on her.
What are the deeper lessons here? One aspect of the myth of innocence is the narrative of an America that put aside its differences, resolved its racial problems, unified after the Civil War and then turned its face outward to become the savior of the world (read: join the other white European empires in their frenzy to divide up the Third World for capitalism). From the mythological perspective, next January will see the next installment of our four-year cycle in which the political establishment and most middle class Americans come together in the great ceremony of re-affirming America’s divinely-inspired purpose.
Yes, yes, I know there are differences. Tell that to a child in Palestine. Neither a Trump nor a Clinton presidency will change these aspects of our national myth. Indeed, it will solidify them further and lay the groundwork for further imperial atrocities, further divisions between rich and poor and irreversible environmental decline.
But it may well destroy – perhaps forever – the notion that our political system has the built-in capacity to inspire millions of new, young voters to work for real change, and that they might see their idealism reflected back at them by their elders.
As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South. – Malcolm X